December 11, 2018

‘Escape Tunnel’ digs up proof of WWII prison break

There were about 250,000 Jews in Lithuania in 1939, nearly half in the capital city of Vilna, where the population was 40 percent Jewish. Today, there are only 3,500 Jews left in the city, but the remains of 70,000 Jews lie in the burial pits in the nearby forest of Ponar, victims of Nazi bullets before gas chambers became the preferred method of extermination. Gone is Vilna’s Great Synagogue, which dated back to 1644, destroyed by the Germans and later razed by the Soviets in the 1950s.

In June of last year, a team of archaeologists and geoscientists arrived in Vilna to virtually excavate both the Great Synagogue and the Ponar mass burial sites with non-invasive technology that combines ground-penetrating radar and electrical resistivity tomography. Not only did they make significant finds at both sites, they confirmed the existence of a rumored escape tunnel that a dozen of the 80 Jewish prisoners on the burial detail used to escape on April 15, 1944, the last night of Passover.

These important discoveries are the subject of the “Nova” documentary “Holocaust Escape Tunnel,” which premieres on PBS stations on April 19. It combines footage shot in Lithuania and interviews with children of the surviving escapees.

Abe Gol’s father, Shlomo, was the ringleader of the prisoners who spent 76 days digging the tunnel with spoons and their bare hands.

“The people of Lithuania and the Ponar area thought that this was a legend and, with no proof that it existed, discounted it. I knew the tunnel existed from what my father told me over the years. There was no doubt in my mind. Now the world knows it too,” Gol said in a telephone interview.

Although his father, who died in 1986, was reluctant to discuss it, Gol would hear bits and pieces of the story as a boy when some of the survivors gathered for an annual reunion on the last night of Passover. At 15, he read an account of the escape based on his father’s testimony in the book “Escape From Ponar,” published in Hebrew. “It corroborated everything I’d heard,” he said.

Shlomo Gol lost most of his family in the Holocaust, including his wife, child and a brother whose body he uncovered while burning corpses at Ponar. At a displaced persons camp in Germany after World War II, he met and married Abe’s mother; they sailed to Israel after Abe’s birth in 1948, and moved to the United States in 1962.

Shlomo had testified at the trials of two Nazi commandants in Nuremberg, bringing the ragged clothes he wore in captivity as evidence. “They were so imbued with the smell of tar and burning corpses that he couldn’t wash it out,” his son said, noting that the “bitter memories” of the ordeal also lingered. “He always told me, ‘Don’t ever forget and don’t ever forgive.’ ”

For Paula Apsell, “Nova’s” senior executive producer, telling the stories of Shlomo Gol and his fellow survivors came with a big responsibility. “You hold the memories of so many people in your hands and you want to give it the respect it deserves and communicate how important this is historically and scientifically. We knew if we told it well, it would have a lot of resonance,” she said. “The challenge was to balance the science and the history and give each its due.”

Initially, Apsell intended to focus the documentary on the Great Synagogue and the artifacts that might lie beneath the school that now sits on its former spot. Evidence of a mikveh was uncovered under the playground. But when the crew unexpectedly found the 100-foot escape tunnel while calibrating the detecting equipment, she shifted gears. “We knew we had a really important story on our hands,” she said.

Shlomo Gol (kneeling, at left) with Vilna partisans. Photo courtesy of Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum

Richard Freund, professor of Jewish History at the University of Hartford and co-leader of the team, was instrumental in telling that story with his “MRI for the ground,” using equipment, software and techniques developed by the oil and gas industries to locate underground reserves.

“Archaeology is the most destructive science on earth, the only science where you can never repeat the experiment,” Freund said. “Instead of blindly excavating, it allows us to see inside without disturbing or violating anything.”

That, he explained, is crucial at sacred sites and burial grounds.

Over the last 25 years, he has used his high-tech, non-invasive methods on 30 projects, including Qumran, Yavneh, and Nazareth in Israel; a synagogue in Rhodes, Greece, that was destroyed by the Nazis; and the death camp Sobibor in Poland.

He plans to return to Lithuania this summer to further investigate the Great Synagogue, as well as a Jewish cemetery in Kovno, several forts that the Nazis turned into killing fields, and a labor camp where the commandant Karl Plagge rescued more than 1,200 Jews.

For Freund, whose Jewish great-grandfather came to the U.S. from Vilna in 1903, the discoveries he made on this latest project had particular resonance.

“There’s not a moment where I don’t think, ‘But for the grace of God.’ If my family had stayed, where would I be?” he wondered.

In addition, he deems the find of the tunnel “fantastic, because you bring closure. There were grandchildren who didn’t believe their grandparents’ stories. In another 20 years, there won’t be anyone to tell the story, and I’m happy that science can tell it.”

Abe Gol, now retired and living in Pembroke Pines, Fla., hopes to accompany Freund to Lithuania this summer. For him, the documentary serves as both a validation for the survivors who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust and ammunition against those who insist it never happened. “This will tell the deniers that it did,” he said.

For Apsell, whose Jewish ancestors were from Russia and Austria-Hungary, the story resonates on several levels. “It gives a good picture of what European Jewry was really like, and you begin to see the even greater depth of the tragedy of the Holocaust. It killed people, but also a fantastic community,” she said, pointing out that Vilna was a “vibrant, cosmopolitan, learned” center for Jewry before the war.

“This was the darkest of all dark times in history and we can never hear enough stories about it because there’s such a danger it will be forgotten,” she said. “Not only does it shed light on a part of the Holocaust we didn’t know, it’s a story of hope and an amazing testimony to the will to survive. At a time when you have so much Holocaust denial and as survivors and memories die, it’s really important to have documented proof that this happened, to make sure that it’s never forgotten.”